All Hallows Read (Day 10) – The Crawling Abbatoir

Re-released this year as an ebook, Martin Mundt’s short horror collection The Crawling Abbatoir caught my eye by title alone. It is one I missed since the initial release in 1999. Thanks to twitter, and John Everson (author of our current book club pick, Violet Eyes) having written the introduction and designing the 2013 edition I’d have likely not run across it anytime soon. So, don’t make the same mistake I did. Pick this one up for All Hallows Read.

crawlingabattoir-500To praise ‘DWF’ and ‘My Love Is A Dead, Dead Rose’ would be nearly narcissistic. He writes like I think in these stories, so he hit a real vein with me right away. The rest of the collection is humorous horror and I am sure many will find the two aforementioned stories funny, but I was actually creeped right the hell out by them. Being a follower of serial killer and cannibal news may be getting to me. There are people out there that think like that! There have been for centuries! There likely have been people posting intimate personal ads looking for corpses! BUT GETTING RESPONSES!!

Yikes!

So, the rest of the collection is creepy and ooky and funny and spooky and a great laugh as much as it is full of terrible dark thoughts and raucous gore. I’d give this book to the class clown with the sick sense of humor. If you thought The Human Centipede was a comedy, you may like The Crawling Abbatoir. It would also make a perfect gift for the academic in your life that takes their horror far too seriously. This is what Lovecraft and Poe read in the outhouse, no doubt.

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Earthworm Gods: Selected Scenes From The End Of The World by Brian Keene

earthwormgodsselectscenes-1-2With no shame at all, I’ll admit Brian Keene has made me cry.

No, it’s not because he’s failed to respond to my countless invitations to dinner, or the way his eyes seem to see straight into my heart. Oh… wait. That’s unrelated. Best you just ignore that.

Keene first brought my rotten heart back to life when he broke onto the horror scene with The Rising. That tale of father Jim Thurmond trying to get to his son, Danny, in the midst of a zombie apocalypse is both terrifying and a tear jerker. As a young father who was going through a divorce and worried the end of his first marriage would devour his relationship with his son much like the zombies in Keene’s debut novel, the book spoke to me and introduced me to an author I grew to admire. Continue reading

The Back Of Beyond – Alan Peter Ryan

Before we get to the review, we’d like to take this opportunity to introduce a brand new feature here at Dreadful Tales. We’ve recruited some fresh blood and we needed a trial by fire to introduce them. First up is Amaria Magus, another Toronto-born reader who like gothic horror, romance and fantasy.

We’ll be doing a point/counterpoint analysis going forward, however this post will be one side’s complete review, followed by the other. Confused yet? Excellent, let’s get started. Continue reading

Rust and Blood by Ed Kurtz

Why is it that sometimes when you come across a name, no matter where you turn, they’re always there seemingly laughing at you from the cabbage bin? Seriously. The past two pieces I’ve reviewed have had something to do with Ed Kurtz, Abattoir Press, or something else that I can’t remember but wanted to add because I like to work my descriptions in groups of three.

This offering, this splendidly varied cornucopia of horrific horror, is Kurtz’s first collection of short stories. Albeit one of the shorter collections I’ve recently read… thankfully… it still packs a wallop of a punch, and fills time without making me wish I’d have YouTubed past glories from So You Think You Can Dance. I will warn you, though, Kurtz does throw out a few pieces you just can’t un-see, but they’re sell worth it. Well, everything but Pearls. That one’s just fucking gross and I really never want to read it again.

From Amazon:

Love and cannibalism, retribution and madness, the horrors people commit in the name of goodness and the abominations that await behind closed doors. RUST & BLOOD collects nine stories of horror and crime where the tables are always turned and no one ever gets out unscathed.

Kurtz opens up this collection with Hunger, and immediately makes a reference to Arsenic and Old Lace. This, in turn, garners him many points in my book, and thus indemnifies him from a negative review. That said, go buy this book.

From here on out, we’ll talk about the mating rituals of the Alaskan Deer Whale-Prawn… uh… what?

Oh. Sorry, Meli.

Okay folks, it seems that I missed something during my absence from DT over the last few months. I’m just receiving word from the powers that be about a memo that went around? Apparently I actually have to review the book before I go on about anybody or anything’s mating habits.

(Ah, a segue in poor taste, Colum… as usual… *groan*)

Hunger starts off with by introducing Matthew, a young man that was morbidly obese as a child who, through the marvels of biology, grows into his fleshy self, and finds newly awesome opportunities with the opposite sex. After several relationships and a desperate addiction to “the next lay”, he finds himself unemployed, disaffected, and eating like it’s going out of style.

Fast forward a bunch of years and a few thousand snack-cakes later, and we see Matthew working at a motel and eventually into the bed of a “professional” named Carla. I won’t give up the rest of it, but look at the title, the set-up of the main character, and you can hopefully see where this is going. And here’s about the point in the review where I’ll put the little idea about mating habits on the table, and leave you to lose your appetite and feel all sorts of uncomfortable. Yep. The reader is fortunate that Kurtz does a wonderful job playing with the story here, and makes this a great opener for what is promising to be a fun little collection of stories. Even if I’ve just put some things in your head that you wish weren’t there.

And then came Sinners – a story that opens with a bit of mystery and grows to become what the reader understands is a sort-of after school special on a bender with Satan. Well, that may be a little excessive, but we’re on a ride in the Kurtz-mobile, so it’s pretty damned on target, if you ask me.

As the story unravels, Kurtz lays out the story of a young man who, upon witnessing or acting in, a brutal experience, is let out of the hospital after a 14 year visit, only to return to the scene of the crime – his home town. But Dean and Lee have it in mind to fix the sitch by finishing what they think should have been finished all those years ago. They mean to kill Billy Thorpe in a sort of small town justice.

Kurtz then takes all of the readers’ expectations and turns them on their head, crafting a deliriously creepy climactic scene, and ensuring a wicked quick page turning end. This is a keeper, for sure. It’s fast, it’s twisting, and it’s chock full of the author’s now trademark style. If you weren’t a fan of Kurtz before, you’re sure to be won over by this one right here.

Slowpoke is up next, making this animal loving reader question the author for a moment, and then deciding to just give the guy a chance to lay out his tale.

Okay… hold on. “Animal loving reader”, as in: I think animals are awesome and should be treated well… not the other way. Carry on.

Two drunkards, and apparently gamblers from the sounds of it, are deep in the sauce when one decides it’s time to kill himself a horsie. Why? A losing bet, I’m supposing. Regardless, they kick off the stools and get to the driving in search of vengeance and a weapon. What they get instead is a pain in the ass from “cousin Ike”, and a great scene full of hilarity that Kurtz pulls off expertly.

Fast forward to the ending, and what we have here is a wicked little ditty that teaches folks about the whole “what goes up must come down” mantra, and when it comes down, it’s probably going to ruin your t-shirt and kill your best friend. But the story isn’t finished yet, as Arnold, one of the two guys who tried to kill Mr. Ed, is put away, eventually gets out, and has to serve community service in a very embarrassing manner. And yes, there’s a great big LOL over here, and a LOL over there. When Kurtz wants to play with his characters and exhibit his wit, he does it well. Kurtz ends this story with a breezy, Tales from the Crypt feel, and again wins this reader’s continued attention.

So then we come to Family Bible, a tale that sees a sort of backwoods Romeo and Juliet, but not, thing going on. You know how these things go. One family is wicked strange, the other is… wicked strange. And two of these folks fall in love. This is a Kurtzified R&J version. So yeah… thar be blood.

Basically, what we see is a young Ezra falling in love with Annabelle, but their love is forbidden as per the Family Bible. Ezra is made to do a ridiculous amount of work in order to prove himself a man, as well as copy out, by hand, and entire bible’s worth of teachings. Ezra’s brother, Jonah, is a hard-case, and totally to the letter when it comes to his religion. When he finds out that Ezra and Annabelle have a thing going on, he goes nutso and makes with the biblical craziness, locking his brother in a room and reeking a sort of justice that is just… crazy. What happens after that is Kurtz proving that sometimes things don’t need to be tied up in a Hollywood kind of way. And goddamnit if he doesn’t do it with a kick in the teeth.

Next up comes the über fucked up W4M, that just had me howling with a wicked sense of “did he seriously just go there?” And yes, he went there.

Kurtz has a way of taking a conventional plot and making it all twisty and turny, ending way off in the cornfield and totally away from where you thought it would go. W4M is definitely not just that. It’s the extreme case of that. It’s a point in literature where you say “This writer fellow really does know a good story, chaps” in a fake English accent that your friends immediately make fun of you for because you actually sound like you came from New Delhi. At which point, someone pokes you and asks you to stay on topic, and you continue by saying that this story takes a tried and true serial stalker/killer idea and eats it up with a faba beans and a nice chianti.

Where Kurtz goes oh-so-very-right with this story is with his style and description. The delivery is sometimes stilted, but the description is just so juicy. Gorehounds will appreciate the delectably disgusting pieces offered up for the meal, and will shudder with delight as the main characters gets more than he bargains for. Beyond that, it’s like Kurtz channeled a wee bit of the old W.J. White nastiness, and created a creature I would love to see make an appearance in a longer work (hint, hint, Kurtz). This is a story that is disgusting, wrong, and twisted in every way. All the right ways.

Now Pearls, my dear friends, is another story altogether. It’s disgusting. I had a hard time reading it, have a hard time thinking about it, and seriously want to gag every time it pops into my head. And yeah… pun intended there. It’s gross-out fare, for sure.

I don’t even want to get into this one very deeply, but let’s just say that the main character suddenly gets a weird skin condition and has the unquenchable need to do something very, very gross. Ugh, my god.

Kurtz’s description is in overdrive here, making sure to remind people that horror isn’t just all about ghosts and goblins and monsters galore. Sometimes the horror is visceral, and sometimes it’s the strangest biological oddities that can make us cringe. Yeah, this is body horror, kids. A lá Ed Lee and all the nice folks outta Necro. Hell, I haven’t read something this gross since Night Shade Books’ Excitable Boys – a rarity that should appeal to anyone who enjoys puking in their mouth. Way to go, Kurtz. You owe me several drinks, dude. Yuck.

Roadbeds is a small pulp tale that first showed its wonderful face on Shotgun Honey’s website as a mystery short. I loved it there, and I still love it here. Kurtz is obviously able to jump around in several different genres, and this collection shows that fluidly. This tale, in particular, shows a side of the man that hasn’t really been seen before. His less visceral, and more straightforward style.

Maury and crew are working on a dig when two bruisers show up. Things get all Mob-like, and one thing definitely leads to another. This story is so short and has such a great formulaic ending that I can’t even describe it here. It kicks ass for a little 3-4 pager. You’ll have to check it out for yourself.

Kurtz decides to go a different route with the next story, Earworm. This one sees the man playing in a land of musical torture, making life very difficult for his main character, and pretty much anyone who happens to be infected by this deadly little ditty from hell. Shit, we’ve all been there. Just thankfully not in Kurtz’s world… cause then we’d be dead.

Going from a great premise that plays with the idea of songs kicking your ass, Kurtz waltzes back into a land of pain pain pain, deciding that his story puppets going crazy isn’t enough to satisfy his lust for death, and all probably because he’s had a bad day at work and wants someone to suffer for it. Okay, that last bit may be stretching the truth, but I wouldn’t put it past any horror writer to kill the ever loving hell out of anyone who pisses them off on a Monday. Well… except for John R. Little. He’s just always so happy when I meet him.

Kurtz has all the time in the world to drag you through what you think is going to be a fairly straightforward story, but obviously hasn’t the patience to put up with your constant jabbering for such a long car trip. Once he’s set the tone for this story, it’s GO!GO!GO! with no letting up. This, my good readers, is a Kurtz trademark. He ensnares you, beats you about the head with everything he’s got, and once you think it’s all over…

…he kills you in a story called Krampus. Well, not you… Me.

Yeah. We’ve been here before, haven’t we? Let’s just look through the DT posts here… won’t be a minute…

Doot doo-doo doo dooooooo….

Um… nope. Haven’t told you folks about this one yet, have I?

Okay. Well, here goes.

Krampus is a nice little Christmas tale about a young boy who hasn’t been very good this year. He’s made to spend the holiday with his Oma, and with the help of her friend Nicholas, she intends to show the boy what bad kids get for Christmas. Oh yeah, and she’s going to have me completely destroyed in a gory festival of awesome!

I was ridiculously stoked when I read this one. No joke. I’d checked it out back in December of 2011, when the skies were dark and my life wasn’t filled with so much… who the hell am I kidding. With four million kids running around and an empty bank account, this was pretty much the best thing that happened that whole holiday season, apart from seeing the kid’s faces on Christmas morning. So you can pretty much understand where I’m coming from if my whole review of this story consists of “buy this book… read this book… love this boooooook.”

In fact, you can go snag yourself a copy of Krampus for free if you’re diligent enough and know how to use google like the naughty little thing that it is.

Anyways, what we’re looking at here is a tried and true Kurtz tale, but with a holiday twist. Couple that with a scary, thick accented beast of a woman, a weird old man, a little Canadian jerk (me) and a boy who just doesn’t know when it’s time to throw in the towel and will yourself to die, and you’ve got the best story this side of Scrooged. The gore is a-plenty, the hilarity is as black as my soul, and the pace is set at a break-neck speed and refuses to stop. Until it stops. At which point… shit… I’m dead anyways, so it just stops.

And now that you’ve slogged through 2400+ words of insanity, you might as well go pony up the couple bucks and get a taste of someone who I’m sure is going to kick the genre’s ass in the coming years. Hell, I know he has a story or two out there waiting for publication. I think maybe it’s just a matter of time before Kurtz takes Control of the situation and brings this genre to new heights. And me, I’ll be sitting right here waiting. Bring it on, Kurtz.

C.

Pain Cages by Paul Kane

Books of the Dead founder James Roy Daley has an eye for talent, so when he chooses to publish someone, the standards are set rather high. Enter: Paul Kane. Paul is a member of the British Fantasy Society and has dedicated a large amount of his time to discovering new talent in literary Sci-Fi. He’s also quite well versed in horror, having penned an episode of Fear Itself, titled New Year’s Day. He’s also an expert on HellRaiser (Clive Barker himself bestowed that title). With three novels and a slew of non-fiction titles, Pain Cages is (at press) Kane’s most recent publication. I initially mistook this to be a full length novel, but rather it is a collection of 4 stories. Do they stack up and bring the pain, or are readers backed into a cage? From the website:

…the blindfold slips a fraction.

I can see a little through my right eye; there isn’t a lot of light, but I see metal bars in front of me, all around me.

A glimpse of the cages on either side: a man, no more than forty, cowering in the corner of his. A woman––the one who’d told me I’d get myself killed––is transfixed by something right in front of her, tears tracking down her cheeks.

I follow her gaze, and wish I hadn’t…

Okay, so that’s actually part of the title story, PAIN CAGES. As you can see, our protagonist Chris is in a little bit of a situation, in that he’s been kidnapped and locked in a hanging cage. He’s not alone, as there are several other cages with varying occupants surrounding him. The story centres around Chris’ plight to escape his cage, and find out the identity of his captors. The subplot revolves around interludes, flashbacks to varying points in the past that Chris must connect to his present condition. The interplay between the past and present is confusing at times, though they do tie themselves up by then end of the story. Religion and death play enormous roles as themes, and are executed very well. The ending isn’t terribly original, but it is a convincing twist to the story that the reader thinks Kane is building. Graphic violence and gore are kept to a minimum, but are done exceedingly well and have an emotional impact on the characters that can sometimes be lacking in these types of stories. The emotional turmoil at the conclusion is a fitting end, though it might seem forced to some readers. Overall, I enjoyed this story immensely.

HALFLIFE documents what happens to teenage werewolves when they grow up and are forced to deal with the consequences of their misguided youth. A hunter stalks the secretive group of middle-aged lycans, picking them off one by one without any hint of his reasoning. The characters run the gamut that you’d expect: the boss, the pretty boy, the family man and so on. The subplot centres on Neil the family man and his continued persistence that his life can be simple (he just has to go to work for a 3 day weekend once a month, no big deal). Kane explores inner turmoil combined with marital apathy to drive the reader to feel sympathetic for Neil and his struggle for normalcy. The werewolves kill discriminately, select their targets carefully and hide any evidence before day breaks. This is a truly refreshing take on werewolf lore, especially given the fact that the story is set in the present, and a rabid monster would most likely become extinct rather quickly. I’m a bit of a sucker for werewolves, but even without my prejudice this story satisfies.

Kane next brings the reader on an astrological train ride. SIGNS OF LIFE quite simply revolves around a passenger train derailment and how it affects each survivor. The scenes are spliced with horoscopes, the signs determined by which character(s) will be focused on in the upcoming passage. I found the interludes to be intrusive and detrimental to an otherwise well-crafted story of human perseverance. The characters are complete and mostly believable. In comparison to the prior two entries, this story is tame and not necessarily what I’d consider horror.

The final story is emotional, challenging, and eerily creepy. THE LAZARUS CONDITION focuses on Matthew, a man trying to put the pieces of his past back together. Kane crafts a brilliant tale, weaving trauma, distress, religion and death into an intricate tapestry affecting Matthew and all of the supporting characters. I am purposely leaving out one rather massive plot point, because you need to read this story. It’s not exactly horror, but it doesn’t need to be. I was attached to almost all the characters (Father Lilley annoyed me, but that’s totally subjective) and the gore, again while not abundant, is done properly and has a deeper impact on the story than simply being there for splatter effect.

Pain Cages is a book I’m happy to have read. While it can be argued that two of the stories aren’t really horror, the overall vibe of this tome is creepy, and well worth a look. To pick up your copy of Pain Cages, visit the Books Of The Dead store. For more information about Paul Kane, visit his website.

Dreadful Tales Gets Weird

Over the past 3 weeks, I’ve read no less than 12 of the most insanely off-the-wall books I’ve ever seen. That’s a lot to digest in such a short amount of time – approximately something like 1200 (or more) pages of the weirdest shit you’ve ever laid your eyes on. And that’s also on top of the books I’ve checked out in the mean-time, and the 100 years of Horror articles.

And sleeping.

And eating.

Not books… eating food.

Though… I could eat books…

Never mind. Eating books is a bad idea right now.

Especially after the announcement I’m about to make, and mostly cause I’m nervous about this.

What’s the announcement? Well, I’m sure you can see that the site has taken on a bit of a… different… look today.

That’s because we’re trying something different with our design (which will be ongoing for a little while) and celebrating Bizarro Fiction for the next 9 days here on Dreadful Tales! (January 23rd to the 31st)

Now, one might ask what exactly Bizarro Fiction is:

According to the most informative website on the genre, Bizarro Central‘s ‘About Bizarro’ page:

What Is Bizarro?

  1. Bizarro, simply put, is the genre of the weird.
  2. Bizarro is literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store.
  3. Like cult movies, Bizarro is sometimes surreal, sometimes avant-garde, sometimes goofy, sometimes bloody, sometimes borderline pornographic, and almost always completely out there.
  4. Bizarro strives not only to be strange, but fascinating, thought-provoking, and, above all, fun to read.
  5. Bizarro often contains a certain cartoon logic that, when applied to the real world, creates an unstable universe where the bizarre becomes the norm and absurdities are made flesh.
  6. Bizarro was created by a group of small press publishers in response to the increasing demand for (good) weird fiction and the increasing number of authors who specialize in it.
  7. Bizarro is like:
    • Franz Kafka meets John Waters
    • Dr. Suess of the post-apocalypse
    • Takashi Miike meets William S. Burroughs
    • Alice in Wonderland for adults
    • Japanese animation directed by David Lynch

Even though the Bizarros are underground cult outsiders they still have gained an incredible amount of respect in the publishing industry, having been praised by the likes of Chuck Palahniuk, Christopher Moore, William Gibson, Jonathan Lethem, Piers Anthony, Cory Doctorow, Poppy Z. Brite, Michael Moorcock, and Charles de Lint, to name a few, as well as the publications Asimov’s Science-fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-fiction, Fangoria, Cemetery Dance, Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Details Magazine, Gothic Magazine, and The Face, among many others. They have also been finalists for the Philip K Dick Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Rhysling Award, the Wonderland Book Award, and the Pushcart Prize.

Bizarro isn’t just weird fiction, it is DAMN GOOD weird fiction. And it grows exponentially every single day, so, love it or hate it, you’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the years to come.

We’re excited to bring you a look at 8 new bizarro novels from Eraserhead Press, and specifically from the minds of the New Bizarro Authors Series folks who fill the 2011 lineup (henceforth known as the NBAS ’11). For those of you who don’t know, this is a series Eraserhead Press has started in order to bring some fresh blood to the genre.

Here’s the idea behind the NBAS:

You hold in your hands now a book from the New Bizarro Author Series. Normally, Eraserhead Press publishes twelve books a year. Of those, only one or two are by new writers. The NBAS alters this dynamic, thus giving more authors of weird fiction a chance at publication. For every book published in this series, the following will be true: This is the author’s first published book. We’re testing the waters to see if this author can find a readership, and whether or not you see more Eraserhead Press titles from this author is up to you. The success of this author is in your hands. If enough copies of this book aren’t sold within a year, there will be no future books from the author published by Eraserhead Press. So, if you enjoy this author’s work and want to see more in print, we encourage you to help him out by writing reviews of his book and telling your friends. In any event, hope you enjoy…

Given the guidelines there, and the fact that I was contacted to review one of the books, I wanted to lend a little more than a helping hand. I’m a huge fan of bizarre tales and upstart authors, and it’s no sweat off my back to read a few hundred pages and talk about it. So for the next bunch of days you’re going to be checking out the weirdest that the genre has to offer (with other stuff peppered in), and reading about some of the fresh blood bursting onto the scene.

With that, let’s welcome Justin Grimbol, Vince Kramer, Constance Ann Fitzgerald, Troy Chambers, Spike Marlowe, Michael Allen Rose, Eric Beeny, and S.D. Foster to the fold. This week is gonna be weird

The Century’s Best Horror Fiction – Part Seven (1961-1970)

Sorry for the delay, folks. Pressing issues meant delaying this week’s post, but it’s here now, and so are you. So let’s get going with the historical fun!

Unfortunately, due to Wikipedia’s SOPA blackout and a wicked hang nail, I will be unable to bring you any funny information about the 1960s.

So let’s make it up as we go along.

From what I can tell through the writing in this decade that John Pelan chose to showcase, the 1960s started off looking rather timid, and then, mid story, flew around like a ton of bricks sprouting wings and calling for the death of wrecking-balls everywhere. There were ups, and there were downs. Highs and lows. Someone invented something I would probably be able to make fun of, and I’m pretty sure Kevin Bacon was born. (Ed. – He was born in 1958, dummy) 

The 60s also witnessed things like the Bay of Pigs invasion, the close of the Algerian War, and the beginning of the Nigerian Civil War. We saw the Cultural Revolution is China, he Troubles in Northern Ireland (a topic close to home, as part of my family is from West Belfast), The Cuban Missile Crisis, and no doubt saw a rise in the popularity of Aspirin and Tylenol. Look at all the stress going on here!

There were no less than ten assassinations, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and JFK. The Valdivia earthquake (the most powerful earthquake ever recorded); the fire on the Cuyahoga River (a river so polluted that it was said one does not drown, rather someone instead decays… ewww); and hurricane Camille smoked everything in its path (the strongest hurricane ever recorded at landfall, reaching sustained winds of 190mph… no thanks).

Wow… the 60s were a really screwed up time…

But wait… there’s something we’re all missing here! The most important single event in all of music history (as far as I’m concerned). No, it wasn’t the Beatles and their strange musical-insect invasion. Pssshhhh. And it wasn’t the Rolling Stones having a number one hit with “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (I think it was the dancing, Mick). It wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or The Doors, or The Who.

In May of 1968, Johnny Cash released his live album “At Folsom Prison”, an album that was not only ground breaking, it was fun. Who else could have thrown down a whole live album at a state prison, sung “A Boy Named Sue” to a rouse of cheers and laughter, and still managed to not sweat the fact that they were in a room with a few hundred convicted felons who would just as likely shank you as they would sing along to and old country song. Johnny Cash – that’s who. Eat that Ringo!

But alas, we’re not here to talk about the amount of awesome Johnny Cash was capable of pulling off, or even how much I detest the Beatles. We’re here to talk about horror…

So let’s do this.

 Ray Russell’s Sardonicus started off in a weird way. The general pace was very slow, and almost boring. In fact, I have to say that I honestly almost skipped this one about half way through, but my dedication to the art of self-abuse kept me going like a trooper. And wow, am I happy I did! Closing in on the end, the tale did a total flip and turned the awesome up to 11. Full distortion. And fireworks, if you follow.

The narrator, a young doctor named Sir Robert Cargrave, receives a letter from an old friend, one Maude Randall, who we later learn Robert used to pine after. She graciously invites him to spend a few weeks in her company at her dwelling – a castle owned by her husband Mr. Sardonicus. Robert accepts the invitations, and soon after finds out the real reason that Maude has invited him there – for Mr. Sardonicus to employ his medical expertise to cure his affliction, an ailment that leaves his face in a permanent and terrifying sneer. Is Sardonicus as much a monster on the inside as he looks without?

Where this story leads the reader is absolutely brilliant, and something I would categorize as simply the best example of what a horror story should be. It’s quiet, unassuming, and then BAM! it hits you like a load of hell shoveled in your face without a moment’s notice. And what’s better is the fact that the story evolves into something terrifying, and then just keeps going for the throat, never relenting. Russell definitely owns the top story for this decade, and outshines everyone else without a doubt.

 The Aquarium by Carl Jacobi is a curious tale. I always find it awkward when a male writer tackles an all female cast, as you can almost never tell where the fables created by man start, and when the real female reaction should be placed. To me, it tends to be an exercise in stereotype, but this is one of those exceptions that slips by, but just barely. Jacobi obviously knows his stuff when it comes to atmosphere and setting, but the delicate emotional balance feels a bit too… delicate.

Miss Emily Rhodes is in the market to buy a new house and upon finding a huge one with more rooms than she can possibly fill, she invites her friend Edith Halbin to join her in residence. A curious Aquarium rests in the middle of the library, filled with a strange and viscous liquid. The general consensus is that this is where the previous inhabitant of the house kept his conches for study, but when Emily tries to drain the piece and find out what’s really inside, she’s met with much resistance. After Edith becomes increasingly obsessed with the literature in the library, and falls into a strange spell, Emily tries to break her out of it. She succeeds, but only for a moment. Edith is eventually drawn to the library one fateful night, and the result is something that Emily’s mind can’t handle.

See, I loved this one for two reasons. One, it skirted the possible failure that I set out above, especially with the ending, and two, it was brutal in its execution. We’re talking full-out Amityville Horror kind of creeps here. But keep in mind, this story does have its faults. Emily and Edith feel incredibly stereotypical, and only end up redeeming themselves near the end of the story. But when they do, this thing blasts along like a train with a rocket engine strapped to the back-end. What a trip. And bloody as all hell!

 There’s something about mirrors that’ve always creeped me out something fierce. Take into account the whole idea of Bloody Mary, of Clive Barker’s short story, The Forbidden, which spawned the Candyman series of films. Those are both extremely effective horror stories and legends that center around mirrors and the evil that they hide. Enter Robert Arthur’s The Mirror of Cagliostro, a story that immediately feels like an Italian Giallo film, and works its way into a whirlwind ride of brutality and offensive content. This was, indeed, a favorite of mine in this decade, as I’m almost always drawn towards the more brutal fare. And oh how brutal it is.

Harry Langham is writing a thesis on the famed Count Alexander Cagliostro, a miracle worker and magician known mostly for his heinous crimes and strange death. Most people regard the man as a fraud, but Harry is certain that there is more to the story than originally published. He holds conference with the only known authority on the subject, and is made aware of the last piece of Cagliostro’s belingings being sold in an antique store in London. After finding and purchasing the mirror, he finds that it is painted over with a thick black substance. Becoming obsessed with the piece, he cleans it and unleashes an evil on the world that will take his very soul to a place of no return.

WOW is this story nasty. This is a Ketchum/Lee kind of brutal that you don’t tend to see in literary horror too often. Where Arthur takes the character of Cagliostro is further than the reader would expect, making the shocks that much more shocking, and the terror organic and psychological at the same as physically uncomfortable. I honestly haven’t seen something of this quality since reading Ketchum’s Joyride, a story that house a character so merciless that I’m surprised it was re-printed without heavy editing. This is a shining example of horror at a primal level. Something that’s just plain mean. Just the way I like it.

 This is the year that Charles Birkin released the phenomenally unsettling short story, A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, and it’s also the hardest for me to write about. Not only does this story stir some incredibly heavy emotions in me, as it would in any reader with a sense of compassion, but the title also makes it impossible for me to think of anything but Merv Griffin singing with jazz hands. A juxtaposition that is absolutely terrifying. It just so happens that this story is even more terrifying.

Try taking this story seriously now (or getting this image out of your head...)

David Cohn and four other prisoners currently housed in a German forced labor camp are sent for and brought to the presence of a spate of sadistic commanders of the SS. They are told that four of them will be given the chance to “win” extra food and scraps for their loved ones if they would partake in a simple game. All they have to do is hit one of five coconuts as may times as possible with a set of tarnished metal balls. They have 20 chances. Four of them will be given upgraded duties in the nazi kitchen, cleaning up after the soldiers mess, and thus given the chance to bring food to help their loved ones survive. The one who comes last will be returned to his duty with nothing. When the prisoners enter the game and complete the tasks, they find that their judges have a wicked, evil surprise for them in the end. A surprise so brutal, it throws their minds into a dark place they will never return from.

This story was mean. There’s not much not to like in the execution, but the subject is just so sad and terrible that it ruins whatever joy I could take in the telling. Birkin is obviously a master of his craft, and has the ability to destroy even the heartiest of readers with a single stroke of the pen. I wanted to love this story, I really did. But I can’t. It’s just too damned heavy. But make no mistake, this is a brilliantly told story of the ultimate suffering of man. The atrocities of the Holocaust aren’t something that could ever be made light reading, in my opinion.

 The Shadowy Street by Jean Ray is another one of those stories that started off with a great deal of promise, but ended up disappointing me in the end. It was, by all means, a great story, but it was just lackluster compared to what I imagine is available for this particular year. Hell, if the story had ended at the first act, I would be singing its praises. Unfortunately, Pelan doesn’t mention any other authors for 1965, but I know there must have been something out that there might have been more compelling. Again, it’s not that this story wasn’t good, it’s just that it rode high and strong, and ended up a confused specter of itself.

While walking in the quayside in the harbour of Rottedam, the Narrator finds two books written in both French and German. Upon translating them, he is made privy to a world that houses more secrets and terrors than man has ever seen. Over time he finds that the world spoken of in these texts actually exists, and finds the last living relatives of the characters mentioned within. He also finds that they are doomed for all eternity because of their greed and inability to let go of the past that their family has foisted upon them.

Like a few others in this collection, I really tried to like this story. The fact that it borders on Fantasy makes it all the more easy to dismiss it as a blip in the history of horror, but it’s the commingling of the two books, the bland repetition of the two stories, and the painfully dull ending that really killed it for me. I want more action is my horror stories, but fans of slow-burning tales may find this up their alley. For me, it wouldn’t even come close to my top choices for an anthology like this.

 Again with the mirrors, man! As I said above, I hate mirrors. The show you the ugly truth of what you are when you don’t want to know, allow for the imagination to play tricks on you, and flip one’s perception without apologies. The Mirror by Arthur Porges doesn’t really do all of those things, but what it does do is shock. I can’t remember the last time I read a story of this caliber that dealt with the subject matter in such a wickedly evil way. Porges goes the distance with his ending, eliciting a well-earned “he did not just go there!” that assures you that “Yes. He did.”

Mr. Avery, father of 5 children, finds the perfect house for his family to live in. It’s spacious, roomy, open, and more than enough for his large breed to play around unhindered. The most curious piece in the house is a giant mirror that overlooks the fireplace, a mirror painted black by someone who had lived there before. There are stories about the house, and about the mirror in particular, that spell danger and doom to those inhabiting the place. But Avery doesn’t let that deter him, and he proceeds to clean the paint from the mirror’s surface. Once the job is complete, he gathers his family around the fireplace to tell a story in the style of Lewis Carroll – a story of another world beyond the mirror. Little does he know, when he and his wife leave the children alone in the house one night, that the creature he invents for the purpose of the tale, a vile and nasty little thing, may actually exist beyond the glass, and may hunger for a snack.

Now think about it. Father buys house. Has 5 children. He tells story about a nasty little thing that lives on the other side of the glass. The kids all “oooh” and “ahhhh” and get all creeped out. One of them see’s a “thing” in the mirror. You can guess what’s coming next. And oh yes, Porges brings the story there. Brilliantly. I honestly can’t help but laugh maniacally every time I read this one.

 Carcinoma Angels by Norman Spinrad. That’s all I should have to say about this one. You should have already read this. If you haven’t, I must insist that you go out and find a copy. Now. If you’ve read stories like Greg Lamberson’s Carnage Road, or any Hunter S. Thompson story that centers around psychedelia and adventure, you’re going to dig the hell out this story. Like the two above mentioned tales, Spinrad’s story is all about the go-go-go and refuses to wait for the reader to catch up. It’s on a mission, and you’ve got no damned choice but to come along for the ride.

(Note – Pelan assumes, in the preamble, that there might be an argument in place to opine that this, in fact, isn’t a horror story, but I have to disagree wholeheartedly. Anything dealing with Cancer is always a tale of terror, and this one is no different. It’s just presented in an entertaining manner. There’s no mistake that this is a brutal subject. It’s just that Spinrad has a way of making it easier to digest, while also making us question the character’s motives. You may carry on now.)

From the time that he was a child, Harrison Wintergreen was able to do phenomenal things in order to make his life better. He orchestrates a plan to gain the best collection of the finest baseball cards on his street, he figures out a way to be the most wanted man on campus, becomes filthy rich, does good things for charitable organizations, helps the wealthy shelter their taxes, and many more ingenious things. But now he has an advanced state of Cancer, an internal enemy that he cannot slay. Harrison holes himself up in a desert compound and sets about finding a cure for his illness, and eventually stumbles upon a way to fight the battle from within. But the fate he designs for himself means that he may never be able to escape.

This is a story that just flies by. It’s almost told in a point-form style, but with a more creative way and with much pizzazz. The eventual end runs more like an adventure/Sci-Fi story than horror, but the subject matter is assuredly of the latter. Cancer is a killer, plain and simple. When Harrison goes up against the comically described, but no less evil Cancer cells, it’s a match fit for Mad Max, with the style and swagger of Lamberson’s Carnage Road. Killer stuff. And so much fun.

 Anna Hunger’s Come is another one of those stories than I’m not too sure about. The setup was great, but the execution leaves more to be desired, and it’s mostly the fault of the narrative and its more-complex-than-most style of storytelling. Hunger has the chops to write on a level with folks like Bradbury, Lovecraft, and their ilk, but I just didn’t feel this story as much as I would have wanted to.

Adam Stark, the eternal playboy and con-man, is coming down with a cold. The people around him are noticing that something is wrong with him. He looks sullen and lost in thought, as well as expressing the physical tells of being ill. Most importantly, the woman with whom is in his most recent relationship is starting to wonder about him. Adam has been remembering his brother, a man who set out to sea and never returned. His last request was that Adam come out and find him if he should be out past a certain date. Adam was never able to find his brother, and his thoughts are now being taken over by the sound of a distant siren – a call to the sea.

Again, I really can’t look at this as a story that I could find myself getting lost in. The narrative is disjointed, there are mentions to certain seemingly important plot points throughout that end up being trivial, and the whole feel is completely off the mark. Like a few others before it, I really tried to like it. Ultimately, though, I found it bland.

 The Last Work of Pietro Apono by Steffan Aletti, on the other hand, was a phenomenal and spooky little read. The story tells like something one would want to find in a biography of Aleister Crowley of Anton Zsandor LaVey, but never do. Like The Mirror of Cagliostro, this story is set around a man who is trying to write the definitive piece on a man so evil, history has branded him a heretic and fraud. In this case, Aletti absolutely kills it with his brutal depiction of the barbaric and nasty things that could happen if the words spoken in a certain occult tale were to come true. This is fantastic Satanic Panic type of story. More fun that a barrel of dead things.

The narrator, in search of information in order to complete his doctorate in Italian Renaissance studies, travels to the home country of Pietro of Apono – the subject of his thesis. He learns that, after being killed while under the eye of the Inquisition, Pietro of Apono was buried with the last piece that he was transcribing – a book that is said to be so evil, it devoured his very soul. The narrator finds the tomb, takes the scroll, and experiences firsthand the terror that Pietro faced right before he was taken into custody. They very thing that claimed his soul forever.

What started out to be a sort-of adventure story ended up with a quick succession of sucker-punches right to the jaw of any reader’s spiritual jaw. This is one of the best examples of what I mentioned above – the Satanic Panic – but far before its time. The tone is dark, the feeling is heavy, but the whole of the story encompasses a more entertaining aspect of the genre than one would imagine. Think about it, if Clive Barker’s Lament Configuration had an evil twin in the form of words, I’m pretty sure this would be it.

 The Lurkers in the Abyss by David A. Riley is the last, and most modern feeling of all the stories this decade. Set in a London town, Riley succeeds in making every drop of rain, breath of air, and pump of muscle feel real enough to make the reader blast through the story in a single shot. I really dug how it finally felt like we were coming out of a particular style of writing with this one, and maybe making our way towards the more modern style of storytelling that I’m used to.

Ian Redfern, in a hurry to get home from the Library, walks the streets as fast as he can. He has heard of bands of teenagers and thugs making trouble, beating up, and even killing folks late at night. He doesn’t want to run into any of these gangs, but soon hears the all too familiar sounds of a group of young people shouting and making all-too-much noise. He skirts around the group in an effort to stay concealed, is seen, and is eventually chased towards a cemetery where he finds his fate awaiting him – a fate with claws and an insatiable hunger for his flesh.

Yes, friends, Romans, country-men… Ghouls. Finally we’ve run across a story about Ghouls. It’s been a long wait, and while Sardonicus (1961) mentioned them in passing, this one says nothing, and then spits ‘em out right at the end. Brilliantly. They’re gross, they’re hungry, and they’re brilliantly described by Riley’s masterful prose. Personally, I was more than a little creeped-out at the end of the story, and thoroughly satisfied with the paths that all of the characters took. This is one for the best-of hall of fame, for sure.

We’ve reached the end of the decade, and we’ve only got three more of these things to go before we catch up with the century and move on to other things. Things like… well… I guess I have three more weeks to figure that out, don’t I?

If you have any suggestions as to what you’d like to see on the site, feel free to drop me a line. I’m all ears, and more than willing to lose lots of sleep for your entertainment.

Join me again next week while we check out the likes of Gary Brandner, David Drake, Eddy C. Bertin, Ramsey Campbell, Michael Shea, and a few more. And we’ll find out if 1977‘s story by Barry N. Malzberg, The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, had anything to do with the birth of modern horror author Ronald Malfi, and his incredible gift for writing quiet horror.

C.